The Real Meaning of Community
Americans may be bowling alone, but they talk incessantly about community. Few words seemed more overused and less applicable to American life than this one. There seems to be an inverse relationship between the dilution of the collective underpinnings of Jewish collectiveness and the increasing usage of the word “community.” When soccer moms studying kabbalistic texts at Starbucks, Twitter groups and just about any casual affiliation between two or more people can be called community, it seems to me that the collective nature of community lacks a tangible common denominator and a shared definition.
Thirty years ago, my wife and I graduated from Wesleyan University and came to Israel separately. We reconnected here and built a life and family, choosing to live on a kibbutz. Then, three years ago, we moved to Washington, D.C., so that I could serve as an Israel education representative. Our return to Israel in August has sharpened the contrasts between different understandings of community.
My age, 54, and the fact that I have lived for the past three decades collectively, surely help shape that statement. I understand community to be a world in which my ties to others are a series of mutual obligations and privileges that connect us now and into the future. I know the people of my community by sight, sound and personal history. The song from the TV show “Cheers” about a place “where everybody knows your name” does not come close to describing how our lives intertwine from cradle to grave. We do not always like each other. We can completely disagree. We rejoice and mourn together. We are often beholden. We decide collectively and abide by those decisions — usually. Sometimes we desire distance; other times we revel in our closeness. Sometimes the difference between an embrace and a chokehold is not clear.
During one recent Sabbath on our kibbutz, Maagan Michael, we celebrated 60 years as a community. Hundreds of people of all ages were on the beach for games, music, food and hanging out. The Sabbath before, we celebrated our class of 18-year-olds completing high school. They put on the traditional musical roast of the kibbutz before heading off for the military or for a year of national volunteer service prior to the army. Each young person stood on the stage with his/her extended family members, many of whom live here. The kibbutz, once portrayed as the cutting edge of the decline of the nuclear family, is now home to burgeoning extended families.
In Israel overall, and on a kibbutz in particular, there is less value in virtual community and more virtue in a tangible connection between people. Over the last three years, I’ve often heard plaintive voices from Americans — Jews and non-Jews alike — longing for a world of neighborhoods and neighbors with less isolation and alienation. They looked for more connection and a sense of shared responsibility for the well-being of themselves and their peers, even as they constructed fences, built firewalls to avoid identity theft and joined virtual groups on Facebook.
But here’s one example of real community: Years ago, we drove to a folk music festival in the town of Beit Shean. On the outskirts, our car stalled. The Sabbath was rapidly approaching. Everything was closed. Some men finishing their coffee at a roadside cafe suggested that I walk to the home of the local garage owner. I knocked on the door and explained our predicament. He came with his jumper cables and started our car. I said, thanks, now we can go home.
He asked why we were skipping the festival. I explained to him that without cables, it was a risk. He gave me the cables, told me to drop them off after the Sabbath and left. We did not know his name. After the Sabbath, we dropped off the cables along with a present, ate dinner with his family and went home. I had the feeling that he did things like this all the time.
These are examples of a collective fabric that we as Israelis share. Our sages spoke of all of us being responsible for each other. That is the community that one can feel in Israel. Do American Jews share such a collective bond? What binds together Jews? Sometimes synagogue, sometimes a Jewish community center pool. But is there a deeper sense of collectiveness? The word “peoplehood” is often used, but does it reflect a Jewish aspiration or a Jewish reality? It seems to me that the word “community” is the patch designed to cover the gaping holes in the collective Jewish quilt, frayed at the edges and with torn stitches between the squares.
Our son always loved Yom Kippur more than the other holidays. It was not a religious experience, but the intoxicating feeling of a complete change in society. No cars drove on the main highway of Israel. As we walked back from services, he would cavort on the highway, doing handstands down the yellow lines.
In America, I felt the empowering nature of the creative Jewish quest and the seduction of individual anonymity, but never that collective Jewish entity of daily life in Israel.
Micha Balf is a former high school principal and Holocaust author who will be serving this year as a visiting Israeli scholar to the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, D.C. He blogs at michabalf.blogspot.com.